49. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
I finished The Second Empress back in mid-December, but my review has been on the back-burner. Thank you to Fashionista-Piranha for the opportunity to read it. I received it as a prize in her giveaway.
Princess Maria Lucia of Austria is asked to make an impossible choice: invite war and devastation on her country and the probable loss of her father's throne OR marry the monster who has wreaked such destruction across Europe.
Meanwhile, Pauline, a woman born into poverty and now the sister of an Emperor, struggles with her unnatural affection for her brother and a debilitating illness.
Pauline's servant, Paul, cares for his mistress and pines for her love as he watches her grow ever more erratic and cruel.
All of these stories are tied together in Michelle Moran's The Second Empress, a historical novel set in the last years of Napoleon's rule in France.
I think choosing to write about Napoleon's often forgotten second wife was an inspired decision, and I was very much looking forward to this read. Maria Lucia's sections were my favorite and I think also had the most authentic voice. Both her girlish fears and her imperial composure and maturity seemed very realistic for a young woman raised in the Austrian court. However, I wish Moran had decided to focus more on Maria Lucia's story. I found Pauline and Paul both distracting and unrealistic.
Now, Pauline seemed like a very interesting person and so did Paul, but I didn't feel Moran was as effective at capturing their voices. Paul seemed impossibly self-aware and Pauline impossibly deluded about the feasibility of marrying her brother. I also simply didn't care about them as much as characters, both were difficult to sympathize with. Or rather, Paul was generically easy to sympathize with, as he puts up with everyone's behavior, and Pauline was a hysteric stereotype, if more vindictively cruel than the average hysteric.
Although Napoleon is a presence in the novel, he seems more like a ghost or a devil that haunts all the POV characters. Moran admits in her Author's Note that she has been harsh in her treatment of Napoleon, but believes it was warranted. I agree. The book is clearly impeccably researched, and I really appreciated the detailed epilogue, glossary, and historical note. However, she didn't need to include the interspersed letters between Napoleon and Josephine. While historically accurate, they didn't add much to the plot and didn't serve to humanize Napoleon, which must have been their ostensible purpose.
I didn't care particularly for Moran's writing style. She used very plain diction for all of the characters, and her sentences and dialogue tended to be unnecessarily long. There was also a painful overuse of adverbs: there are many instances where he/she says something "honestly", "patiently," "slowly,"proudly" etc.
The Second Empress reads like the bare bones of a really great historical novel. The material is there, but it's not presented to its best advantage. I'm sorry to report that I cannot add it to the list of top-quality historical novels from 2012. I do commend it, however, for not falling into the historical romance trap that has ruined so much "historical fiction" for me in the past decade.